Word Watch: Allegedly Innocent Suspects
The jury that acquitted Michael Jackson of child-molestation charges this month did not find him innocent.
A lot of alleged journalists need to be talked off allege.
And suspects don’t commit crimes. Criminals do.
These may not be the most serious misuses of language by journalists, but they are among the most common, and not that hard to get right. So let’s get it right:
Not guilty is precise legal language best left intact. It is accurate to paraphrase it as acquitted, but not as innocent. After the Jackson verdict, some jurors were quick to say they didn’t buy his attorneys’ portrayal of the defendant as childlike and guileless. They weren’t even sure he didn’t commit the crimes he was charged with, or others. They didn’t have to be. The judge painstakingly instructed them on the exact standard of proof prosecutors had to meet.
Should Jackson’s accuser – or, more accurately, his accuser’s mother – decide to sue Jackson in civil court, she will not have to meet so high a standard. A court could find him liable for the very acts involved in the criminal charges. It happened to O.J. Simpson.
Some news organizations worry that the not will be inadvertently dropped from their reporting of a not guilty verdict, resulting in an inaccuracy even greater than what might be conveyed by the word innocent. But there is an alternative that avoids both problems: acquitted.
I’m no lawyer, as any lawyer reading this can clearly see. I do understand the instinct of journalists to translate turgid legal verbiage into clear language. But clarity is nothing without accuracy. Proclaim your own innocence, if you must, but don’t report that someone else is innocent – unless you have far more information than a verdict.
Now, a little advice on alleged: Avoid it.
It’s a word journalists should use no more often than necessary – and, more important, one that offers none of the protection some users seem to think it does. To allege means to assert without offering proof. To slap the adjective alleged or the adverb allegedly in front of some damning characterization does not diminish the damnation. That is, it doesn’t protect the writer or speaker from being sued. (See paragraph above to review my legal qualifications.)
Such use also raises, or should raise in the inquisitive mind of any journalist, a critical question: Who alleges? The subject of that verb – be it police, prosecutors, political opponents or someone else – is always important, and almost always omitted.
Occasionally, alleged appears entirely without justification, and serves only to demonstrate the cluelessness of the speaker or writer -- as in reference to, say, “an alleged death.” Where death is involved, there is usually proof and rarely doubt. Responsibility is another matter, but if death is only an allegation, more reporting is probably in order.
Sometimes people allege not that an action or event occurred, but that it constitutes a crime – that a killing is a murder, or that a sex act is an assault. In such cases, journalists are wise to use attribution with precision and consistency, leaving legal findings to the courts. Speaking of murder, remember that not all homicides are murders and that murder carries a specific legal meaning.
Finally, the usual suspects:
As a noun, this word has quite a simple definition: “One who is suspected, especially of having committed a crime.” Somehow, however, people both in journalism and in law enforcement often use suspect as a synonym for criminal. I suspect that is sometimes for fear of defaming someone. Have I mentioned I’m not a lawyer? Yet even I know you can’t defame someone without identifying him or her in some way.
So saying “the suspect robbed the store” is silly if there is no suspect, meaning police don’t yet think they know who did it. It’s worse than silly, it’s misleading, if there is a suspect. That, in fact, could be defamatory. The person who robbed the store was the robber. He may or may not ever become a suspect, and a suspect may or may not have been the robber.
It’s similarly silly to say, as anchors and reporters regularly do, that “police are searching for suspects,” unless police think they know who committed a crime or crimes, and are looking for those specific individuals. Usually, police are searching for actual criminals. They’re the ones who commit crimes.
I have actually heard reporters on a couple of occasions refer to “alleged suspects.” That characterization seems clumsy, confusing and maybe even inaccurate, but if ever you do encounter such a person in your work, remember:
Alleged suspects are innocent until proven guilty.